The Incident in Kinshasha
For seven years I worked for the IUCN, based at that time in Morges, Switzerland. The acronym is apparently meaningless to most Americans but stands, as I noted, for an organization then known as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, and now known simply as the World Conservation Union, but retaining the logo IUCN.
My career at IUCN was in the role of senior ecologist, the number three position in the IUCN secretariat, under the director general and deputy director general. When I arrived in Morges in 1970 almost the entire staff was new and we were all trying to build a new organization, on the basis of a large grant from the Ford Foundation.
IUCN may well have been the most complex international organization ever devised. Its membership included all the UN's governmental organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), among them the most cantankerous environmental organizations on earth. In theory its governing body, a general assembly, met every three years. The group was made up of delegates from all the member organizations, including both governmental agencies and private groups such as the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth—U.K. It was essentially a bicameral assembly, since everything had to be approved by both the governmental and nongovernmental members. Thus if the Canadian NGOs wanted to halt the destruction of Canada's coastal forests or prevent the James Bay Development, the Canadian government's delegates could block their resolution on the issue. If this meant that the final approved program was somewhat bland, so be it.
During the three years between general assemblies the organization was governed by an executive board elected by the general assembly, which met as needed during this period. In fact, the board usually approved the recommendations of the director general, since the members could hardly keep up with the IUCN secretariat's daily work.
To add further complications, IUCN at that time had commissions, made up of experts in species survival, protected areas, ecology, education, law, and environmental planning. The commission chairpersons sat on the executive board and held considerable ability to influence decisions. To make matters still more complicated, IUCN was tied to the World Wildlife Fund, which provided a good share of its financing and tried to influence its programs and projects. IUCN was also tied to the UN Environmental Program (UNEP), based in Nairobi, which supported some major activities, and to UNESCO and FAO, which also provided support for some projects.
In the face of all this it is quite amazing that the IUCN secretariat and commissions ever managed to get any real work done. Paperwork, intended to keep all the players satisfied, was voluminous, but actually quite a bit of real conservation work in countries around the world was accomplished.
Among the many problems IUCN faced was in the field of personnel. There it inherited the UN problem, that the paid staff must be somewhat representative of the membership. That meant that you could not necessarily hire the best, most qualified person to do a particular job, but had to maintain a balance among Africans, Asians, Europeans, North Americans, Latin Americans, and so forth, as well as take into account the socialist and capitalist divisions of the membership. Hence we sometimes found ourselves with less than qualified staff.
When I was with IUCN the director general was Gerardo Budowski, a brilliant plant ecologist and expert on tropical forests. He was a Venezuelan citizen but had been with a tropical research organization in Costa Rica (CATIE) before he joined UNESCO to take charge of the MAB program. From UNESCO he moved on to take over as chief executive of IUCN. I followed him there. The deputy director general, Frank Nichols, had come to IUCN from Thailand but was an Australian citizen. His background was in physics but he was primarily an administrator. Unfortunately, he conveyed the impression, perhaps a false impression, that his interest in conservation was minimal and that he would be equally happy working for the exploiters. My role in the secretariat was at first heavily involved with IUCN policy and programs, so that the three of us formed what the Russian board members called a troika based on our behavior at council meetings. However, I was to move away from policy and administration to concentrate more on research.
Anyone might assume that an organization directed toward the highest human ideals of nature conservation and headquartered in a delightful old chateau by the shores of Lac Leman in the quiet town of Morges, not far from Geneva, would bring out the very best in its staff. It was an idyllic setting in which idealism should have thrived, but it did not.
I became heavily involved in a number of projects such as mapping the world's biotic areas in order to give us a firm base for directing expenditures on research and conservation in third-world countries. Regrettably, the old IUCN along with the World Wildlife Fund had directed projects toward the areas of interest to its board and leaders, or folks with money, rather than the areas of greatest need. There were or had been numbers of projects in East Africa, because the British VIPs liked to go there. There were few in West Africa. There were many projects in India, another favorite hang-out of wealthy British, but few in the rest of Asia except for Indonesia, which the Dutch VIPs favored.
In working with UNESCO and later with the IUCN in Switzerland, I found that both organizations tended to use the biome system of classification of natural communities originally developed by Frederick Clements and Victor Shelford (as I mentioned in chapter 7). However, this system makes use of vegetation structure without paying great attention to the species involved except for the dominant plants. It could be considered the opposite of the system developed by Braun-Blanquet at Montpellier in France, which pays attention to the species without emphasis on structural arrangements of the plants. The biome system (or vegetation formation) was further developed and expanded by Ray Fosberg, botanist at the Smithsonian Institution, as the classification used primarily by the IBP since it had been developed to cover the world's vegetation. Fosberg did not pay attention to the successional status of the vegetation, unlike Clements, but described what was growing on the ground, not what it might over time develop into as a climax that would then hold the ground for a long time, perhaps thousands of years in the case of a redwood or big tree (Sequoiadendron) forest.
The question that I felt was of first importance for IUCN was what was the purpose of the classification; for what would it be used? The answer, as I saw it, was for species conservation as a primary objective for IUCN. To protect species, however, you must protect their habitat, the biotic community of which they form a part. Thus it was necessary to protect not just one tropical lowland rain forest in the Amazon, but all the different kinds of tropical lowland rain forests. All might have a similar vegetation structure and support ecologically equivalent animal species. But a leopard is not a jaguar, even though they both occupy similar niches and both have the same status as top predators in their food chains.
If IUCN, the World Wildlife Fund, or other conservation agencies were to put most of their money and energy into rain-forest conservation in the Amazon, they could lose hundreds or even millions of species found only in Asian, Australian, or African rain forests. A useful classification would therefore emphasize species composition as well as vegetation structure. Such a system had been developed by Lee Dice in Michigan and was called biotic provinces. Though Dice was concerned only with North America, I decided to apply it worldwide. To help with this I was able to draw on the knowledge of members of IUCN's ecology commission and species survival commission, as well as others. With this, I drew the boundaries of the major biotic provinces based on vegetation maps, floristic provinces, and bird and mammal distribution.
These attempts to define and classify the floral and faunal areas of the world are based on work done long ago. In 1849 Alexander von Humboldt noticed that changes occurring in vegetation at increasing elevation in mountains resembled the changes he observed traveling from the tropics toward the polar regions. And in 1876 Alfred Russell Wallace noted the major faunal and vegetational regions of the world, which were to become known as Wallace's realms. Before him, P. L. Sclater tried in 1858 to classify the natural regions of the world on the basis of their bird fauna. Thus early researchers had seen that the Australian fauna was distinctly different from that of Asia, since the continents had long been separated. Similarly, the fauna in North America was distinctly different from that of South America: few North American mammals had crossed over the land bridge of Panama that emerged from the sea relatively recently (in geological terms). Deer and mountain lions had moved south across the bridge; tapirs and peccaries had moved north. But the major faunal differences between the continents remained. The Asian tropics had more in common with Africa than with Asia north of the Himalayan barrier.
Dice's biotic provinces and similar work defining floristic provinces were on a much smaller scale than the differences in Wallace's realms. My first task at IUCN involved pulling together all this material in an attempt to define and map the biotic provinces of the world. Some of my colleagues were reluctant to draw lines on a map, but if I drew the lines they often responded quickly, pointing out my errors. I had trouble getting any response from researchers in China and the U.S.S.R. and was struggling to define the biotic provinces of Latin America. As I got ready to produce a final map I turned to Miklos Udvardy at Sacramento State University. The textbook of zoogeography he had produced seemed to have a lot in common with what I was doing and he was willing to work with me. Fortunately he was also much more familiar than I with Latin America and Central Europe. John King, my old pal and fellow sufferer from the 32d Infantry Division who was by then working for the CIA, finally got me the information on China. The end result of all this was presented as an IUCN occasional paper (Udvardy 1975) and then as an excellent map and accompanying text by UNESCO. For reasons now obscure to me, I did not put my name on the final product and so missed out on any fame that might have adhered to it. Udvardy was certainly willing to have me as coauthor or senior author, but I declined. Does it matter? No.
My work with biotic provinces led to my becoming involved with the concept of bioregions (though I preferred the label "eco-cultural regions," since far more than biology goes into defining their boundaries). Teddy Goldsmith, editor and publisher of The Ecologist, a British journal, sent me a copy of a paper submitted to him by Peter Berg. He asked that I read it and, if I thought it to be basically worthwhile, to work with Berg to rewrite it so it would be publishable. I did this and the result was an article, "Reinhabiting California," by Berg and Dasmann (1976). This struck a responsive chord among the countercultural people of that time and it was reprinted in a number of books and journals. Essentially, it pointed to the need for a new political economy based on the ecological characteristics of an area and the human cultural activities that could lead to sustainable uses of that place. Instead of a map showing only floral, vegetational, and faunal provinces, it would also take into account human perception of the area they considered to be home. It called upon people to become well acquainted with the area in which they lived and to know where their water, food, atmosphere, energy resources, and other necessities for life came from and what was happening to them. It asked that people develop a reasonable degree of self-reliance, or at least the knowledge and ability to survive in the place where they lived. In many ways this was the opposite of the global network being developed by economists and politicians, which put a primary emphasis on trade and commerce. Their global network would force some areas to become permanent suppliers of raw or unprocessed materials and to put maximum emphasis on production for export to industrial or technological centers, which would then provide the manufactured materials for the original producers to purchase.
All these ideas contributed to my interest in ecodevelopment, meaning the improvements of living standards for people based on the use of knowledge derived from ecology to achieve sustainable ways of life, sustainable not only for people but for the ecosystems and species that had evolved on earth. I don't know who first used the term ecodevelopment, but it came to my attention in a speech by Maurice Strong when he accepted the leadership of UNEP. Many of us in IUCN agreed that it fit the programs we had been advocating. UNEP held a number of small workshops in Geneva to give better definition to the concept. In these I worked with Jimoh Omo Fadaka of Nigeria, Ignacy Sachs of France, Viktor Kollontai of the U.S.S.R., and others. The most complete coverage of the concept and its meaning came with a joint conference sponsored by UNEP and the UN Commission on Trade and Development at Cocoyoc, Mexico, in 1974. The Cocoyoc Declaration, written for the symposium by Barbara Ward (I believe), states the problems, goals, and objectives very well. The entire text is available in an appendix to my fifth edition of Environmental Conservation (1984).
Essentially, ecodevelopment stresses that human use of planet earth must respect the ecological constraints imposed by the natural environment. Failure to respect them will mean more and worse floods, more severe and frequent drought, more severe and frequent hurricanes and tornadoes on top of unpredictable levels of volcanic eruptions and earthquakesñessentially wiping out any economic gains. Since the world is an ocean planet, 70 percent seas and oceans, pollution and overfishing contribute to continuing disastrous effects.
Global warming caused by human use of hydrocarbons leads to all of the above disasters and yet we have been unwilling to take the necessary and known measures to cope with it. We appear, as a nation, to be in denial concerning this issue or simply hoping that something will turn up to save us.
Second, ecodevelopment stresses that development must be directed to meeting the basic needs of the poorest people before paying attention to the wants of the elite. This is obvious but is the reverse of most economic development going on today. It has been noted that food flows from the poorest countries to the wealthiest who can afford to buy it.
Finally, ecodevelopment must emphasize development of self-reliance to break down dependency on the wealthier and more technologically advanced, taking into account local cultures and local environmental conditions. In my travels for IUCN and later, I have attempted to spread this message to many countries, from Australia and New Zealand to South Africa and Sri Lanka. It has not always been well received, since it goes against the interests of the transnational corporations and the exploiters. However, I keep trying.
While I was up to my ears in my favorite research areas, I was largely unaware of the growing antagonism of most of the staff toward the directorate. Already at the time of our general assembly at Banff, Canada, one of the problems surfaced. Frank Nichols, who was aggressive and well organized, gave the impression that he was running the meeting and that the director general was essentially his puppet. Both the president of IUCN, Donald Kuenen of the Netherlands, and I spoke to Budowski about this problem, and I presume Kuenen also spoke to Nichols. However, the problem persisted, as Budowski was away much of the time, visiting countries in which we had projects, which left Nichols in charge. This would have been acceptable had Nichols been less willing to undermine Gerardo's authority and more considerate of his staff.
By the time of IUCN's general assembly in Kinshasha, Zaire, the situation had totally deteriorated. On the flight to Zaire I was bombarded with complaints by other staff members about the behavior of our directors. I was told that Nichols had virtually terrorized some of the staff. Since all these people were dependent on their jobs at IUCN for, in most cases, support of their families, and were working in a foreign country, they were desperate. Furthermore, IUCN was reaching a penniless state.
The situation did not improve in Zaire. To begin with, it was very hot and humid. Our meeting place, constructed as a new and relatively luxurious locale for such gatherings, had an excellent auditorium and meeting rooms, but the food was terrible and drinks, with the exception of Zairian beer, were very expensive. Our quarters were not far from the Congo River, a vast moving waterway whose other shore was invisible, in another country. I thought of Kipling's "great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees." The river carried silt and pollution from millions of acres. I would not have dared to venture into the water. There was a haze in the air, no doubt smoke, which gave us spectacular sunsets, and at night a full red moon rising.
Unlike at any previous IUCN general assembly, we peace-loving conservationists found ourselves frequently encountering President Mobutu's special troops. Wearing new uniforms and armed with Uzis, Kalashnikovs, or whatever, they were omnipresent. Those who carelessly snapped their cameras at various sites around the meeting place had their cameras taken and film destroyed. On President Mobutu's first appearance at the general assembly, a throne covered with leopard skins was set up for his distinguished backside. An armed female contingent in the latest camouflage wear did a fancy Congolese dance and sang songs in his praise.
The motel rooms in which we were placed had been built recently by unskilled people. Showers, washbasins, and toilets did not necessarily work. Still we were able to adapt and went through the first technical sessions of the meeting without serious problems. Then, however, the VIPs were taken on a fieldtrip to the national parks, whereas the rest of us were left behind. Sitting in the bar in the evening drinking Congo beer and watching rats run around the wainscoting offered a perfect setting for rebellion.
I shared a room with Duncan Poore, former director of the British Nature Conservancy, who had joined me in IUCN as an additional senior ecologist. One evening we were invited to a meeting in another motel room with members of the American delegation to the general assembly. We were told that if the director general did not withdraw his nomination to continue for another three years, the United States would pull out of IUCN, and that it was up to us to bring about the withdrawal. If we were successful, we were told that a half-million U.S. dollars from an unstated source would be made available to support IUCN. Furthermore, we were given the impression that if the U.S. pulled out, the other major donor nations would soon follow suit.
This was all that was needed to blow off the lid and set the IUCN pot to boiling over. Emergency staff meetings went on into the night. Who advanced what idea I do not know, but it was finally agreed that a strike was called for. The formal general assembly meetings would be halted if all of us refused to do any further work, and we would refuse unless the director general agreed not to run for reelection.
I pointed out what happened to revolutionaries when the revolutions did not succeed, and that the proposed rebellion could succeed only if every one of us, from support staff secretaries to principal area chiefs, swore to stand fast, not give an inch, regardless of threats. I said that there could be no retreat. Furthermore, that each one of us, individually, would undoubtedly be taken aside, pressured and questioned in order to separate the leaders of the revolt. Fortunately, I pointed out, we had no leaders. Some time around then, I was asked to be the leader and to inform my old friend Budowski that he must resign. I protested and squirmed but finally had to agree that I was the only one close enough to Gerardo to have a chance of bringing a peaceful solution to the crisis. I was wrong.
While awaiting the return of the VIPs, I insisted that all of us circulate among the hundreds of delegates who had arrived to tell them what was happening and enlist their support. I took on the African delegates, in which I was aided by my old friend from Nigeria, Jimoh Omo Fadaka, who was well respected in Africa.
When the time arrived, I went to speak to Gerardo to give him the bad news. I tried my best diplomacy, but there is no gentle way to tell somebody that in his absence his staff had voted him out of office. He was furious and refused to believe me. I suppose he thought I was plotting to replace him in office. In any event, the struggle began. He talked to all his supporters in the general assembly and to each of the staff members. The head of the Zairian delegation offered to throw us all in jail. However, that not only would have stopped the general assembly but would have brought IUCN into the world news spotlight with publicity it had never been able to access before.
An emergency meeting of the executive board was called and we "ringleaders" were called before it. Nobody cracked. Nobody gave way. The U.S. representative, however, denied any threat that the U.S. would pull out of IUCN or that any such conversations had taken place. National delegates were spoken to about the problem. Finally, it was agreed that Budowski had to withdraw his candidacy for a third term. He did, as gracefully as possible. A special general assembly meeting was called for in Geneva, specifically to vote in a new director general and to change the ways in which directors general were to be elected in the future.
The night before we were all to depart for Brussels and Geneva, the staff held a celebration party. There was a great sigh of relief when the plane took off the next morning with nobody shot or jailed.
The whole incident was promptly swept under the rug as if it had never happened, and as if the director general's withdrawal of his candidacy were a normal thing. Frank Nichols, the deputy director general of IUCN, agreed to take early retirement and go home to Australia.
It would be naive to assume that all went well after the incident in Zaire. It did not. For one thing, we were still virtually penniless. For another, I was asked to serve as acting director general with the understanding that I was not interested in becoming a candidate for election at the emergency general assembly meeting. I agreed, with the understanding that Duncan Poore, who did intend to be a candidate, would assist me. He and I were put in the position where we had to beg funds from the World Wildlife Fund to meet the next payroll. It was humiliating. I do not know what wheels were turning at that time. The executive board was acting, however.
Meanwhile several of the mid-level staff decided that we were all overpaid, including themselves, and proceeded to plot to change the situation, a sort of counterrevolution within the revolution about which I was not kept informed. I do not know what motivated them. We were paid on the UN scale but our positions actually had more responsibilities than their UN equivalents.
I attempted to run IUCN in a democratic manner, seeking advice and opinions from all staff members. One European colleague accused me of having "silly American ideas about democracy." He assured me that Europeans had no such illusions. Harold Coolidge, whom I also consulted, since he was one of the original founders of IUCN, indicated that I was asking the "hired help" to run the house. Up to a point, I was willing to look the other way when my colleagues exercised their crusty old aristocratic attitudes and proclivities. When people's livelihood was threatened and their lives made miserable, I had to draw the line.
The final blow came one day when I was working in my office and Donald Kuenen, our president, and Luc Hoffman, the executive vice president of World Wildlife Fund, set themselves up in the office next to me and proceeded to call the staff in one by one. Under the implicit threat of possible dismissal, each one signed a paper accepting a 25 percent pay cut. I knew nothing of this until I was called in and informed that virtually all the staff had agreed to take the cut and that it was now my turn.
I told them what I thought of their undercutting my authority. I informed them that I had already taken a voluntary pay cut, as had most of the staff, that I would not sign their paper, that they could immediately have half my pay since I would go on a half-time appointment, and that as soon as I finished the projects I was working on, they could have all my pay, since I would be leaving. Furthermore, as of then I resigned as acting director general.
Nothing ever ends that dramatically, except perhaps life itself. I called a general staff meeting and informed them all of my action and my feelings. Then I went home to break the news to Elizabeth. Next thing our Australian board member came to our apartment and asked me to reconsider my words and actions. I told him, "No way."
So that is my story. I am sure that every participant in the "incident in Zaire" has a different account. I have felt badly about the whole thing and have wondered since if I had been led into a trap. If so, I can guess who baited it. I must say, however, that IUCN today, the new World Conservation Union, differs from what I have described. It has been changed in many ways and is no longer the lean, hungry, and confused organization that I once knew but rather well funded and no longer subject to the same pressures from World Wildlife Fund International. Much credit must be given to its recent two-term director general, Martin Holdgate of the U.K., but also to his predecessors.
My immediate replacement as acting director general was Duncan Poore. However, the emergency general assembly in Geneva elected the Canadian David Munro, who resigned after one term to be replaced by Lee Talbot of the United States, who resigned to be replaced by a fellow American, Kenton Miller, who turned the reins over to Holdgate and a new regime of relative peace and stability for the newly named World Conservation Union. At the 1988 general assembly in San José, Costa Rica, all former directors general and acting directors general met together without visible signs of stress to wish Holdgate the best of luck. All were elected "Members of Honour" of IUCN.
After completing his two terms as director general, Martin Holdgate agreed to write a history of IUCN. This he did, and it was published in 1999 by IUCN under the title The Green Web. He asked me to contribute to the chapter he called "The Night of the Long Knives," concerned with the turmoil leading to the replacement of the director general in Kinshasha. I sent him a draft of my chapter on "the incident in Kinshasha," some parts of which he included in his book.